North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project

Reading primary sources: Slave narratives

Commentary and sidebar notes by Kathryn Walbert

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Reading primary sources: Slave narratives

Commentary and sidebar notes by Kathryn Walbert

Photo of the exterior of a wooden slave house at Stagville Plantation.

One of the slave houses at Stagville Plantation in North Carolina. Abner Jordan, whose narrative provides the basis for this thinking guide, was a slave at Stagville. (More about the photograph)

Abner Jordan was a life-long resident of North Carolina who was born into slavery in the 19th century. As an older, free man, he was interviewed as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, a program established to created work for unemployed writers during the Great Depression. Mr. Jordan’s narrative and the stories of more than two thousand other former slaves were collectively included in the WPA’s Slave Narrative Project.

A surface reading of this slave narrative provides a first-person description of some of Mr. Jordan’s experiences during slavery. A deeper reading, however, reveals some of the cultural influences and historic realities that might have impacted the way a former slave would describe his past — and the way an interviewer would record it.

As with any primary source document, the key to understanding a slave narrative lies in asking the right questions. This interactive guide steps through layers of questions, leading the reader through the process of historical inquiry.

This edition is one in a series of guides on reading historical primary sources.